Equipment Makers Not Liable in Two Asbestos Lawsuits

December 16, 2008

In separate cases dealing with asbestos-related illness, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that a manufacturer can’t be held liable for failing to warn about the hazards of someone else’s product.

The cases involve two men who once worked aboard Navy ships, Joseph Simonetta and Vernon Braaten.

Simonetta said his lung cancer was caused by performing maintenance on an evaporator, a device that removes salt from sea water. Braaten, who worked as a pipefitter, developed mesothelioma.

More than a dozen companies were sued, including Griscom Russell, now called Viad.

In Simonetta’s case, after the evaporator was shipped from the Griscom Russell plant in 1941 or 1942, it was insulated with asbestos products made by another company.

The asbestos exposure that contributed to Simonetta’s lung cancer allegedly occurred in 1958 or 1959, when asbestos insulation had to be removed from the evaporator during maintenance work. Simonetta served in the Navy 1954 to 1974, and was diagnosed in 2000 and 2002.

In Braaten’s case, the defendants were manufacturers of valves and pumps sold to the Navy and used aboard ships.

After the valves and pumps were installed, the Navy applied asbestos-containing insulation. Braaten changed packing on the pumps and valves, which required removing the exterior asbestos insulation, removing the old packing, replacing the packing and reapplying asbestos insulation.

Braaten worked as a pipefitter aboard Navy ships from 1967 until 2002. He was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a form of cancer, in 2003.

In separate 6-3 rulings in both cases, the court said the defendants couldn’t be held liable because they didn’t make, sell or distribute the asbestos– only the products it was applied to.

“The manufacturer has the duty to warn of the hazards involved in the use of the product that are or should be known to the manufacturer,” the court wrote. “But Washington case law does not support extending the duty to warn to another manufacturer’s product.”

Signing the majority opinion in both cases were Chief Justice Gerry Alexander and Justices Charles Johnson, Susan Owens, Mary Fairhurst, Barbara Madsen and James Johnson.

An attorney for Buffalo Pumps, one of the companies being sued in the cases, said it was an important ruling.

“Maybe the biggest significance of this case is that we avoided what could have been a very shaky extension of products liability laws that would have had an impact on all sorts of things,” said Seattle-based attorney Michael King.

Dissenting justices argued that the companies should be liable because asbestos was key to the use of the equipment.

The majority’s decision that a company had “no duty to warn of a serious hazard it knew or should have known was involved in the use of its product ignores logic, common sense, and justice,” wrote Justice Debra Stephens, joined by Justices Richard Sanders and Tom Chambers.

Attorneys for Simonetta and Braaten did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.

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